Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

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Cover crop mixture expression is influenced by nitrogen availability and growing degree days

Author: Barbara Baraibar, Ebony G. Murrell, Brosi A. Bradley, Mary E. Barbercheck,David A. Mortensen, Jason P. Kaye, Charles M. White

Publication: Plos One


Cover crop mixtures can provide multiple ecosystem services but provisioning of these services is contingent upon the expression of component species in the mixture. From the same seed mixture, cover crop mixture expression varied greatly across farms and we hypothesized that this variation was correlated with soil inorganic nitrogen (N) concentrations and growing degree days. We measured fall and spring biomass of a standard five-species mixture of canola (Brassica napus L.), Austrian winter pea (Pisum sativum L), triticale (x Triticosecale Wittm.), red clover (Trifolium pratense L.) and crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum L.) seeded at a research station and on 8 farms across Pennsylvania and New York in two consecutive years. At the research station, soil inorganic N (soil iN) availablity and cumulative fall growing degree days (GDD) were experimentally manipulated through fertilizer additions and planting date. Farmers seeded the standard mixture and a “farm-tuned” mixture of the same five species with component seeding rates adjusted to achieve farmer-desired services. We used Structural Equation Modeling to parse out the effects of soil iN and GDD on cover crop mixture expression. When soil iN and fall GDD were high, canola dominated the mixture, especially in the fall. Low soil iN favored legume species while a shorter growing season favored triticale. Changes in seeding rates influenced mixture composition in fall and spring but interacted with GDD to determine the final expression of the mixture. Our results show that when soil iN availability is high at the time of cover crop planting, highly competitive species can dominate mixtures which could potentially decrease services provided by other species, especially legumes. Early planting dates can exacerbate the dominance of aggressive species. Managers should choose cover crop species and seeding rates according to their soil iN and GDD to ensure the provision of desired services.

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